Broadcasters are in business because the public grants them free access to the airwaves. It's not too much to expect them to also make it easy for the public to know who is buying the political ads they find there. Local television stations should tell their leaders to stop fighting commonsense reform proposed by the Federal Communications Commission that will bring much-needed sunlight to the money behind politics.
Right now public broadcasters have to make certain information available to the public as a condition of their federal licenses. One part of that requirement is that they maintain a log of what political advertising aired, how much it cost and who paid for it. And that means all political advertising — federal, state and local races and even issue ads. Usually within about 48 hours of an ad airing, stations must have that information available as well as a list of executives or members of the board of directors of groups sponsoring the ads.
This compendium is a tremendous resource for the media, public interest groups and voters who want to see who is behind an ad buy or whether a local station's coverage decisions are being influenced by their advertisers. But this "public information file" is a paper document that the station typically sticks in a storage cabinet and makes available only to those who go there to take a look — and that's not many.
The FCC's proposed rule, expected to be voted on April 27, would require major stations in the top 50 markets to upload their political advertising information to an FCC website. Smaller stations would be given two more years to comply, a nod to complaints by broadcasters that the requirement is expensive and burdensome. It's a baseless claim. Once systems are automated, digitizing information saves money and staff time over keeping paper records. Moreover, stations can afford to put a few resources toward their public interest obligations.
Estimates are that television broadcasters will earn $2.5 billion in political advertising in 2012, an increase of more than 60 percent from 2008, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court unleashing an avalanche of money for independent ads with its Citizens United decision. By having the information on all these ads centralized, online and in searchable form (a detail that isn't yet clear in the rules, but should be made mandatory too) the public would be given for the first time an easy way to track money that goes into political ads, and any special interests financing them. This won't solve America's problem with big money in politics drowning out smaller voices, but at least it will let everyone know who is doing the speaking.